Tackling dragon: China's forward postures towards Indian borders

To be able to contain China, its neighbors, especially India will have to learn to keep two jumps ahead of the Li Hua indigenous Chinese striped cat as New Delhi is learning to its consternation over the latest Chinese incursion into Ladakh.

The incursion was planned with meticulous care, keeping in view the weather, the arrival of a Japanese defence delegation to New Delhi, the deployment of several Chinese vessels around disputed Pacific islands by Beijing and the publication of rules of engagement for People’s Liberation Army Navy vessels operating in the South China Sea- stop and board foreign ships to assert sovereignty.

So far, none of its neighbors have been able to forge a cohesive joint approach to handle an increasingly assertive China and the Han nation is set to deal with each one “bilaterally”.

It has started with India and Japan who have shown some signs of creating a joint security network and a meshing of geopolitical perceptions in recent times. The most recent intrusion into the Ladakh region is intended to show up India as just nothing but a paper tiger, incapable of being able to protect its own national interests.

It is also intended to send a strong message that any of those countries that have a security-related problem with China, can not remain dependent upon India for any assistance.

India, caught by surprise again, is trying to return to the status quo ante by suggesting a third flag meeting at the point of intrusion under which the Chinese can withdraw and the two sides can continue the “peaceful negotiation” of the border problem.  

But the Chinese have come to stay. The timing shows it.

Provoking act

The intrusion- a continuum of last year’s intrusion in which the People’s Liberation Army troops removed all vestiges of Indian traditional presence like tents set up by the Indo-Tibetan Border Police or the stone bunkers that had been constructed over the decades since 1962- happened just as soon as the winter snows had melted in early April. It shows that the group of about 30 soldiers has come to stay for the greater part of the rest of the year -at least till the next snowfall in November.

Among the series of diplomatic messages and diktats the move highlights is that China has not intruded into Indian territory thereby suggesting that this portion of the former princely State of Jammu and Kashmir too does not belong to India.

It has thus opened the second prong or axis that will bracket northern Jammu and Kashmir currently under the control of Indian troops, inclusive of the Siachen Glacier.

Its demand that India stop all infrastructure projects is intended to bolster its claim to territory far beyond its current actual control.

China offers to hold talks with India on its core concerns in the region which appeared to open the door for a tripartite arrangement in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

Some experts think Indian interests too could be accommodated with regard to access of Indian goods and services across new road links connecting India through Aksai Chin to Afghanistan through the Wakhan panhandle between Kyrgyzstan, China and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

India had eagerly seized that offer of talks in the hope that both countries could have a less Islamic fundamentalist terrorist-affected link to Afghanistan and the Central Asian Republics, that hope has been dashed by Beijing’s latest bullying tactic.

It is very likely that over the next seven months the Chinese will reinforce the token force of about thirty troops that it has inducted into the Daulat Beg Oldi sector and construct infrastructure at that point.

In some ways China’s action in Daulat Beg Oldi could be counter-productive in that there is now no reason for India to be diffident towards Chinese opinion and it should accelerate the growth of the very infrastructure that China is demanding that India must stop.

India has tended to hesitate so as not to provoke China. Now there is no need for such hesitation and even as it is slowly increasing the numbers of troops arrayed against the Chinese it must bring in heavy artillery more especially the Pinaka multibarrel rocket launchers.

It is an indigenous weapons system; India has the capability of producing them in bulk indigenously and it will not need to go abroad for munitions for this weapons platform. These factors will prove to be a tremendous advantage in what is going to prove to be a long-drawn-out confrontation given that the nature and tone of the Chinese diktat is akin to the acceptance of serfdom by India.

Stong response

To be able to neutralize the Chinese military advantage of achieving surprise; India should choose the place and set the stage; with a proclaimed backup of a at least thirty divisions of infantry and associated support echelons of tanks, mechanized infantry, mobile multibarrel rocket launchers and heavy mortars.  

India needs to be ready for a Kargil-type of response to the Chinese perfidy. By itself it is an escalation of the type of bloody nose that Indian troops inflicted on the Chinese when they did the same kind of dirty tricks in Nathu La in 1967. A more muted but effective response was that in Sumdurong Chu in Arunachal Pradesh in 1986.

It is a battlefield of China’s choice and India needs to teach it a lesson which it will not forget in a hurry. The landscape appears to favor the Chinese tactic of human waves backed by a surfeit of heavy artillery (in 1962 it had used 160 mm mortars against Indian troops).

These are high trajectory weapons with limited range. The MBRLs in the Indian armory have a range of up to 40 kms and can saturate an area of 3 km square in a series of ripples from a battery of 18 vehicles carrying a dozen rockets each.

After Kargil India had decided to upgrade this type of weapon to reach a range of 120 km. Hopefully user trials have been completed and the weapon is ready for induction as frontline artillery. Its 214 mm warhead is huge by any standards and Global Positioning System-assisted munitions make for greater accuracy and lethality against both hard targets like tanks and mechanized vehicles (which the Chinese can easily deploy all along the Tibetan plateau) and can also be effective against Chinese human wave tactics.

It is one weapon that can neutralize Chinese advantage in the ability to mass manpower over long distances at short notice, especially if the 120-km range platform has become operational.

A weapon of this kind of range-supplemented by the Russian-supplied Smerch rockets- can create a killing zone of at least 100 km ahead of the Indian forward edge of battle, taking on the Chinese human wave tactics and chopping them up long before the Chinese troops are able to engage Indian troops or seize and hold land.

On the contrary, behind a weapon of this range Indian troop can push the Chinese back till they reach the Aksai Chin road-the original bone of all the contention-and prevent the Chinese from using it.

Through Special Forces operations, India should interfere with the Karakoram Highway in a manner in which whatever modernization-blacktop, triple-laning, all-weather- the Chinese have accomplished over the past two years, since the landslide created a lake at Attabad north of the Gilgit town and is nullified at several point all along its length.

This should ensure that the Karakoram Highway will not be able to be used for the next ten years by either Pakistan or China to create an alternative shorter route for the much-needed energy supplies from the Gulf.

India can yet turn the tables against both China and Pakistan, who have been posing a two-front war against India. If India confronts the Chinese in the above-mentioned manner, any Pakistani hopes of seizing the political high ground in Afghanistan could become untenable for some time to come.

By standing its ground India will be able to send out a very powerful message to all of China’s neighbor all along the Pacific Rim with which it has created unnatural maritime disputes that violate the Laws of the Seas.

China’s bullying tactics could unravel whatever chances of rapprochement decades of negotiations have created. Can China afford to lose any or most of the overland and maritime assets it has created in the Indian Ocean region, more particularly through Pakistan, its Gwadar port and the Karakoram Highway?